N.B. on ‘Blue Mars’ by Kim Stanley Robinson

Case N1

I consider the epic SF Mars trilogy by K.S. Robinson (K.S.R) as one of the 20th-century genre literature achievements on par with “The Lord of the Rings”.  Not only the characters and societies are plausible and  3D detailed, I cannot fault the description of biology with the usual “heightened reality” caveat. On the strength of this, I trust all science I don’t know such as geology as in any popular science book.

But recently, while re-reading the trilogy. I found a small chink in the armor that made me doubt the rest of the book science. The last book in the trilogy, Blue Mars,  published in 1996 deals with the aftermath of Mars and Earth revolutions.

One of the main characters, Nirgal, notices that his Mars farm plants start suffering from a disease. The disease is a viroid –  a plant virus that consists of a short looped RNA.

pstviroid

Structure of PST viroid. A chain of RNA nucleotides pairs with itself creating a double-stranded structure with bubbles of unpaired nucleotides. (Image by Jakub Friedl  via Wikimedia Commons, GNU)

From the novel:

Viroids like this one caused several plant diseases, including pale cucumber disease, chrysanthemum stunt, chlorotic mottle, cadang-cadang, citrus exocortis.

This is all true. But the quote below is not:

Viroids had also been confirmed as the agent in some animal brain diseases, like scrapie, and kuru, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.

All the diseases above are caused by self-replication and accumulation of a misfolded form of protein PrP, prion. The ‘protein only’ heredity of kuru,  an endemic disease of cannibals, was postulated by Pruisner in the 1960s. Nobody believed him but as the evidence accumulated, he was awarded the Nobel prize in 1997, not long after the first edition of the Blue Mars.

Considering that the list of books by K.S.R. on the cover inside of my copy has Galileo’s Dream (2009), long after epidemics of mad cow disease forced prions out of science arcana into public consciousness not editing this is sloppy.

More on this topic.

Another quote from Blue Mars:

A  stained slice of a brain of a Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease sufferer. Note large white spots where the cells (stained pink) were killed by accumulation prion. Also, note long “strings”, this is accumulated prion made of PrP protein. (Image by Dr. Al Jenny via Wikimedia Commons).

The viroids used host enzymes to reproduce and then were taken to be regulatory molecules in the nuclei of infected cells, disturbing growth-hormone production in particular.

Right in a vague sort of way.

Case N2

There is a brilliant mathematician in the book. And one of the main male characters wonders how a woman can be a genius in math and why there wasn’t one. Ever.

Hello?

Hypatia – one of the first known scientists;

Ada Lovelace – mother of computer programming;

Emmy Noether –  lauded by Albert Einstein.

Robinson tries not to be sexist by imagining that in the future a female math genius will be possible just as terraforming Mars will be possible, but fails to research the topic or  -even worse – dismisses all women as not good enough.

 

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